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  • Writer's pictureJabe Stafford

One Page Wonders XV - On The Smog Among Stars

Flash fiction is a love of mine, and so are geeky tropes and pulp-style stories of every variety. Sometimes it's the characters that spur the writing. Other times it's atmosphere, concept, magic system, or a twist. One Page Wonders blogs started as a writing exercise. Now they're digestible, one-shot stories you can read on the bus or while sneaking 5 minutes at work!

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They called it a psychoactive agent in the medical industry back on Earth Central because they didn’t know any better at first. Anesthetics were commonly used for everything from open heart surgery to a tooth extraction. They removed sensation. Induced loss of awareness—unconsciousness—so the operation could proceed in a humane manner. No one on the big-time anesthetics ever remembered what happened in the first three dimensions until it wore off.

Is it a wonder, then, why doctors never thought to launch someone on the smog into space?

“You’re un-fucking conscious most of the time anyway,” I say to Hax when he tosses me a syringe full of smog. “Now lemme go fly this quantum-entangled star shuttle.”

“You talking to yourself for fun, Yolina?” Hax joshes. “Or you trying to be your own therapist again?”

I ponder the question for a split second and let my eyes speed-read the shuttle interior. Two other co-pilots like me and Hax are wrestling with the entire console in front of them like they’re rushing through the fastest FPS games from our childhood. There’s us, then there’s Peli and Chuck. Where Hax and I look like fraternal twin rockers from Boston, Peli and Chuck had the kind of muscle bodybuilders worked hard at. A pair of weapons-trained co-pilots—us—plus an MMA caliber duo—them—equaled one star shuttle piloting crew. The Macrophage's crew.

Shooters and fighters. One pair awake, one smogged out. And it ain’t that way so the awake can protect the sleeping. Didn’t know what’s needed for piloting in the fourth and fifth dimensions. No one did. We needed all the skill sets we could get when we went under on the smog, from combat to gaming to shooting and of course, piloting.

How’m I talking at you, you ask? Blame the smog and don’t let Hax’s worries worry you.

“Yep, just psyching myself up,” I tell Hax. Unzipping my uniform, I whip it off and stand proud in sports bra and uniform pants like a bad inter-galaxy liquor ad on cable. That's the old kind of TV, in case you're in a different time or something and didn't know. “I pretend I’m giving shit to the original smog manufacturers. Like they’ll hear me calling out how insane their plans to invent IG travel are.”

Hax throws my uniform top back at me. “They might hear you once we hit IG. Nobody knows.”

The worry in his voice hits me and I tie the uniform top around my hips. “I won’t blink the Macrophage a light year away from Freya, I swear.”

Only pilots exhibiting signs of schizophrenia are in danger of missing their destination by a lightyear or two. And I ain’t one of those.

Hax jabs a planet on his console screen and the same planet on my screen blinks green. He says, “Freya’s the equivalent of a New York or an Osaka. Miss her, and the cost comes out of our next six months of paychecks. Or we all friggin’ die, so there’s that.”

I roll my eyes and point out the portholes. Seas of stars ebb and whirl about outside. Light millions of years old sparkles like the surface of ocean waves with a sun’s rays striking them. A chalky dryness coats my tongue and I chew on it, drawing out the moisture. Hax stares out the porthole nearest him, and so do Peli and Chuck.

Chuck tears his gaze away from the sight first and nods once to me.

I initiate the IG travel sequence and strap myself into the chair in front of my console. “Hax,” I say, “I missed once when I was twenty-one. It’s been ten years. And Chuck’s my fighter on this IG trip. Data shows that two widely-skilled smoggos make IG trips seven times more likely to succeed. One of us can take over if the other flubs. See you on the other side.”

A countdown clock appears on the console in front of me. One minute until IG.

At 35.72 seconds, I need to inject the needle into the vein in the crook of my left arm.

No I don’t give a shit what the vein’s called. I just need to hit it with smog one second after I penetrate. Don’t look at me like that. I meant with the needle.

The countdown hits 50 seconds.

Hax calls out, “Yolina, if you’re developing schizophrenia, you could lose your job or pilot a future flight right into an asteroid belt. There’s therapy and med—”

“Smog don’t affect me like that,” I shout. “Injecting in 15.28.”

To tell you the truth, I hadn’t even though of the thousand passengers aboard the Macrophage until Hax started worrying. That asshole. Reminding me of terraformers and doctors aboard.

The countdown hits 40 seconds.

I squirt a drop of smog from the syringe and line the needle up against the vein.

“When you missed last time,” Hax yells, “Were you talking to yourself or the rea—”

The countdown hits 36.72 seconds.

I shove the plunger home.

All the smog—16ml of it—starts to hit my veins at 35.71 seconds.

A hundredth of a second off.

IG space kicks in and I feel my body slump in the chair. Hax and Peli would protect my body if passengers tried to hijack us. Which they sometimes did if assassins or zealots wanted specific people dead in a situation that could have been a piloting accident.

My five senses plus the three dimensions vanish from my perception. I can’t remember or feel shit…


Two point seven five hours.

The distance touches my fourth and fifth dimensional senses in place of the sense of depth perception and physical space occupation I normally enjoy while awake. Rather than feeling I’m occupying the space of a chair and a ship and a body, my organs are the Freya’s second-by-second movement possibility. Momentum, my feet and legs. Mass, my body. Kinetic energy, my hands and arms.

My thoughts are the knowledge I could jump a light year and land gauging the momentum to make a second and a third light year jump in moments.

This time, IG space was a platformer rather than an FPS shooter.

I gauge the first jump and leap toward our destination.

Landed easily. Two point two-five hours.

I measure another jump and the mass lands on the time just right. One point five hours.

Time wobbles beneath my mass.

Damn hundredth of a second. Got to hit all my landings or the momentum will carry the Macrophage way past Freya.

With no choice but to leap again before my momentum carries me off, I leap without perceiving the next landing.

Instinct guides me to land without losing momentum or kinetic energy. One hour.

More wobbles. No time to even think about the next landing.

Another leap, another landing. Thirty minutes.

The time I’d landed on vanishes beneath me. Nothing to leap off of. Shit. We’re stuck a light year short of Freya. Could be we’ll hit anything. Six months pay or a thousand people screwed. Or both—

Wait! I twist the kinetic energy of my "hands" and "arms" beneath me and leap using it.

Zero minutes.

I’ve landed with the exact momentum needed to kick us out of IG. I made all my landings, and losing the kinetic energy won’t matter when it comes time for Hax to pilot next. He’ll get his own kinetic energy when he gets smogged up on our next trip. Once he hits the fourth and fifth dimensions, he might gripe at me that I didn’t leave him any. Eh, he’ll forget again once he drops out of IG.

My eyes open and the first thing I see is your face. Your eyes. Reading this.

I blink. Hax’s mug swims into view. He says, “Thanks for getting us to Freya. Peli and I had your back in the original three dimensions. No craziness to report.”

I squint, trying and failing to remember what the hell I did on the trip.

Hax smiles. “Stop it, Yolina. No pilot remembers their trips on the smog.”

I look up at you and beam like a kid with her first gaming console. “You remember what I did, right? What’re the fourth and fifth dimensions like?”

“Who you talking to, Yolina?”

Smog renders a pilot unconscious, but only in the first 3 dimensions. In the 4th and 5th, they’re awakened and aware of how to move around in those dimensions just like how we humans do in normal space/time. Entangled shuttles can be moved by smog-unconscious pilots. The still-conscious pilots don’t perceive any movement by the ship since they’re not on the smog, but the ship DOES move through space-time, dragging any conscious people and physical objects along with it. Journeys to other solar systems take 2-3hrs, maybe 5-6 for the longest trips.

The downsides? A) No pilot can tell anyone what happens when they’re on the smog. It’s like their brains are only programmed to remember movement/experiences in the original 3 dimensions when they’re awake. They only remember movement/experiences in the 4th and 5th dimensions when they’re on the smog. This means that it’s known HOW shuttles travel to other solar systems in 2-6 hours, but not WHAT happens/what the pilots have to do/go through to get the ships to their destinations. And B) Pilots tend to develop psychoses and need therapists to deal with things like induced schizophrenia from so much piloting. The more pilots are seen to argue with themselves and behave in extreme manic-depressive ways, the more likely they are to blink the ship past the destination or to take the wrong dose size of smog. If the drug doesn’t wear off on the exact time schedule needed, the shuttle can be left in normal space light years short of its destination, or overshoot it.

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